AskDefine | Define ecumenical

Dictionary Definition

ecumenical adj
1 concerned with promoting unity among churches or religions; "ecumenical thinking"; "ecumenical activities"; "the ecumenical movement" [syn: ecumenic, oecumenic, oecumenical]
2 of worldwide scope or applicability; "an issue of cosmopolitan import"; "the shrewdest political and ecumenical comment of our time"- Christopher Morley; "universal experience" [syn: cosmopolitan, oecumenical, general, universal, worldwide]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative forms


  • /ˌɛkjuˈmɛn.ɪk.əl/
  • /%Ekju"mEn.Ik.@l/


  1. general; universal
  2. Pertaining to the Christian Church in a worldwide sense or of the desire to unite the denominations of the Christian Church
  3. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement)
  4. interreligous or interdenominational
  5. including or containing a mixture of diverse elements or styles; mixed



Extensive Definition

Ecumenism (also oecumenism, œcumenism) refers to initiatives aimed at greater religious unity or cooperation.
In its broadest sense, this unity or cooperation may refer to a worldwide religious unity; by the advocation of a greater sense of shared spirituality across the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most commonly, however, ecumenism is used in a more narrow meaning; referring to a greater cooperation among different religious denominations of a single one of these faiths.
The word is derived from Greek (oikoumene), which means "the inhabited world", and was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. Today, the word is used predominantly by and with reference to Christian denominations and Christian Churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, the term ecumenism refers to the idea of a Christian unity in the literal meaning: that there should be a single Christian Church.

Christian ecumenism and interfaith pluralism

Christian ecumenism, in the narrower sense referred to above, is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of Christianity. For some Catholics it may, but not always, have the goal of reconciling all who profess Christian faith to bring them into a single, visible organization, i.e. through union with the Roman Catholic Church. For some Protestants spiritual unity suffices.
According to Edmund Schlink,most important in Christian ecumenism is that people focus primarily on Christ, not on separate church organizations. In his book Ökumenische Dogmatik (1983), he says Christians who see the risen Christ at work in the lives of various Christians and in diverse churches, realize that the unity of Christ's church has never been lost (pages 694-700; also his "Report," Dialog 1963, 2:4, 328), but has instead been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences and by spiritual myopia. Both are overcome in renewed faith in Christ. Included in that is responding to his admonition (John 17; also Philippians 2) to be one in him and love one another as a witness to the world. The result of mutual recognition would be a discernible worldwide fellowship, organized in a historically new way (pages 707-708; also Skibbe, A Quiet Reformer 1999, 122-4; Schlink, The Vision of the Pope 2001).
Christian ecumenism is distinguished from interfaith pluralism. Ecumenism in this broad sense is called religious pluralism, as distinguished from ecumenism within a faith movement. Standing against ecumenism is the traditional Orthodox Church which staunchly maintains there is but one church, the historic Orthodox church. Leading the anti ecumenical movement in the 1980s was Fr. John Boylan of the OCA. The interfaith movement strives for greater mutual respect, toleration, and co-operation among the world religions.
Ecumenism as interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths, does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations. It promotes toleration, mutual respect and cooperation, whether among Christian denominations, or between Christianity and other faiths.

Three approaches to Christian unity

For a significant part of the Christian world, the highest aim of the Christian faith is the reconciliation of all humanity into a full and conscious union as one Christian Church, visibly united with mutual accountability between the parts and the whole. The desire is expressed by many denominations of Christendom, that all who profess faith in Christ in sincerity, would be more fully cooperative and supportive of one another.
Christian ecumenism can be described in terms of the three largest divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. While this underemphasizes the complexity of these divisions, it is a useful model.

Roman Catholicism

Like the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church has always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow-Christians, and at the same time to reject what it saw as promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the main stress was laid on this second aspect, as exemplified in canon 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law:
  1. It is illicit for the faithful to assist at or participate in any way in non-Catholic religious functions.
  2. For a serious reason requiring, in case of doubt, the Bishop's approval, passive or merely material presence at non-Catholic funerals, weddings and similar occasions because of holding a civil office or as a courtesy can be tolerated, provided there is no danger of perversion or scandal.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law has no corresponding canon. It absolutely forbids Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (canon 908), but allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. And the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102 states: "Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state."
Pope John XXIII, who convoked the Council that brought this change of emphasis about, said that the Council's aim was to seek renewal of the Church itself, which would serve, for those separated from the See of Rome, as a "gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father."
Some elements of the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism are illustrated in the following quotations from the Council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio of 21 November 1964, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint of 25 May 1995.
Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity ... There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble. gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. ... The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us". So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us.}}
While some Eastern Orthodox Churches commonly baptize converts from the Catholic Church, thereby refusing to recognize the baptism that the converts have previously received, the Catholic Church has always accepted the validity of all the sacraments administered by the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The Catholic Church likewise has never applied the terms "heterodox" or "heretic" to the Eastern Orthodox Church or its members. Even the term "schism", as defined in canon 751 of its Code of Canon Law ("the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him"), does not, strictly speaking, apply to the situation of the concrete individual members of the Eastern Orthodox Church today as viewed by the Catholic Church.

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches each consider themselves to be the original church, from which the West was divided in the fifth and eleventh centuries, respectively. Several of these churches have in recent years engaged in theological dialogue with each other and with some of the Western churches, though short of full communion. The Eastern Orthodox have participated in the Interfaith movement, with students active in the World Student Christian Federation since the late 19th century and some Orthodox patriarchs enlisting their communions as charter members of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless, the Orthodox have not been willing to participate in any redefinition of the Christian faith toward a reduced, minimal, anti-dogmatic and anti-traditional Christianity. Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox is the Church; and the Church is Orthodoxy—nothing less and nothing else. Therefore, while Orthodox ecumenism is "open to dialogue with the devil himself", the Orthodox have defined their position in the ecumenical movement as being "witnesses to the truth", the goal being to reconcile the heterodox (i.e., non-Orthodox) back into Orthodoxy.
One way to observe the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards non-Orthodox is to see how they receive new members from other faiths. Non-Christians, such as Buddhists or atheists, who wish to become Orthodox Christians are accepted through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation. Protestants and Roman Catholics are sometimes received through chrismation only, provided they had received a trinitarian baptism. Also Protestants and Roman Catholics are often referred to as "heterodox", which simply means "other believing", rather than as heretics, implying that they did not willfully reject the Church. However, such policies are decided by each individual church, and more traditional groups will receive all converts only by baptism and chrismation.
There has always been a segment within the Orthodox Church that is wary of ecumenical involvement, and in recent years greater restraint has been shown by leaders within the various national churches. Any work to embrace estranged communions must strenously guard against a promiscuous and false union with them. There is at present no official intercommunion between Orthodox and non-Orthodox churches.


Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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